“Et quicumque hanc regulam secuti fuerint pax super illos et misericordia . . .”
In one corner of the cloister of our house of studies in Washington, D.C., there stands a statue of St. Dominic holding a lily in his right hand and an open book in his left. The lily–a traditional symbol of virginal purity–draws Dominican minds to a line from the O Lumen that calls our founder the “ivory of chastity.” Since we sing this chant nearly every night, the import of the efflorescent article in the statue’s right hand is unmistakable: Dominic was a man of stalwart purity.
The point of the open book, however, is less clear. They say that St. Dominic always carried St. Paul’s letters with him, so it isn’t surprising to find a Pauline verse scrawled across the book’s exposed pages. The verse, written in Latin, is Galatians 6:16, “peace and mercy be upon whoever follows this rule,” and you can’t help but wonder: why that verse? What rule is the statuary patriarch of preachers commending to his contemporary children? The early constitutions of the Order (often referred to as the “rule of St. Dominic”)? The rule of St. Augustine (unanimously adopted by Dominic and his brethren)?
Though reasonable, such answers strike me as only partial responses to the question. Dominic once threatened that, if he should ever find out that the brothers were imposing the rule (i.e., the constitutions) so strongly as to insist that breaking the rule was inherently sinful, he would go to that community and personally destroy their copy of the rule. Similarly, the whole reason he wrote the constitutions in the first place was because he acknowledged that the rule of St. Augustine didn’t perfectly fit the form of religious life he wanted to live, and so it needed a complementary set of norms. Dominic’s flexible approach to Augustine’s rule and the Order’s constitutions (i.e., subordinating these things to the Order’s ultimate purpose–preaching for the salvation of souls) makes us wonder if the deepest identity of the “rule” in question doesn’t lie elsewhere.
This doubt only grows stronger when we consider the context of the scripture passage in question. Recall that the passage comes at the very end of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. And what is the central focus of Galatians? Paul’s visceral invective against judaizing gentiles. The whole point of that letter is that gentile Christians should not be bound to follow the letter of the Jewish law, but rather should rejoice in their newfound freedom in Christ. If Dominic’s book bears a quote from Galatians, then the “rule” it refers to must be more than a mere code of conduct written on scraps of paper. It must be a way of life joined inseparably to Jesus Christ. It must be a way of life leading to peace and mercy. And it must be a way of life that Dominic himself walked.
So what is Dominic’s “rule”? I would suggest it is the following: “behave as gospel men, following in the footsteps of the Saviour, speaking to God or of God, among yourselves or with your neighbours.”
In the primitive constitutions of the Order, St. Dominic began his discussion of preachers with these words. The same words now stand at the beginning of our constitutions today. They form, as it were, the heart of the heart of Dominican life, for these words were themselves formed from Dominic’s own heart.
When we, like him, speak only to God or of God, we become conformed to Jesus Christ, who alone among men is perfectly united to and perfectly revelatory of God the Father. This union with Christ in prayer and preaching leads to total transparency of life. Truly evangelical men are such in private and in public, in the chapel and on the road. And that transparency translates into authentic Christian freedom. Dominic was everything Paul exhorted the Galatians to be–a man motivated by love and thus bound by no law but that of charity. All that he did, he did freely and for the sake of Christ.
Dominic was a vir evangelicus, a gospel man, and he calls his sons to be the same. His is a path of joy and freedom, a task that is easy and a burden that is light; for it is nothing else than the following of Christ the Preacher–speaking to God or of God, among ourselves or with our neighbors.
Peace and mercy be upon whoever follows this rule.
Image: Leandro Bassano, Honorius III Approving the Rule of St. Dominic in 1216